Fluid Power’s Role in Our Nation’s Energy Efficient Future Part 4: Connecting Fluid Power to the U.S. Department of Energy

Fourth in a series of articles describing NFPA’s actions focused on the development of a program within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that can fund and focus on energy efficiency improvements using fluid power technology. The envisioned program would be partly research-focused, helping to develop new energy efficient fluid power technologies, and partly education-focused, helping to improve the design and maintenance of existing fluid power systems with current technologies and techniques. To read the full series, go here.

Armed with a study funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that showed fluid power systems (a) consumed a significant amount of energy and (b) held great potential for energy efficiency improvements, our next step was to use the study and the information it contained to help open discussions about where fluid power could fit within the energy efficiency objectives of the DOE.

By this time, what had been the Industrial Technologies Program within the DOE had been transformed into the Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO), and its leadership had gone through a number of transitions. Although we tried to maintain contact and nurture a dialogue through those transitions, it wasn’t until May 2013 that we were able to secure a meeting with the interim director of the AMO. Several representatives of the fluid power industry attended that meeting, and we came prepared to re-educate him and his team, if necessary, on the U.S. fluid power industry and its potential impact on our nation’s energy. Here’s a quick summary of the facts we brought to the discussion:

Fluid power is a large and important industry in the United States

  • Fluid power is the use of fluids under pressure to generate, control, and transmit power. In hydraulics, a liquid such as mineral oil or water is used. In pneumatics, a gas such as air or nitrogen is used.
  • Fluid power has numerous advantages, including force and power density and flexibility, that make it a foundational technology for dozens of industries. Fluid power is used extensively in manufacturing, mobile equipment, aerospace, mining, automotive, material handling, and medical equipment applications.
  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 1,700 U.S. companies that manufacture or distribute fluid power components, providing over 683,000 jobs. Sales of fluid power components exceed $17 billion per year. Annual sales of systems that utilize fluid power exceed $225 billion.

Fluid power consumes 2-3% of our nation’s energy

  • In 2012, the Department of Energy published a study that estimated the amount of energy consumed by fluid power systems in the United States—across industrial as well as mobile and aerospace applications.
  • The results show that fluid power systems consume between 2.0 and 2.9 quads of energy each year. Efficiency ranged from 6% to 60%, with an average efficiency of 22%.

Fluid power represents a major opportunity for improving energy efficiency

  • The DOE study explored possible gains in efficiency that could come through better adoption of current best practices in the marketplace and through development of a focused R&D program.
  • The results show that market education of best practices could increase average fluid power system efficiency to 27%, saving 0.4 quads per year, and that a focused R&D program could additionally increase average fluid power system efficiency to 36%, saving an additional 0.8 quads per year.

Fluid power has a strong industry base that is interested in technology advancement

Fluid power has built an industry/academic coalition that focuses on research and emerging technology

  • In 2006, a National Science Foundation-funded Engineering Research Center focused on fluid power opened.
  • The Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power is a coalition of 50 companies, 7 universities and more than 100 researchers that are changing the way fluid power is researched, applied and taught.
  • CCEFP research successes include new energy efficient digital hydraulic concepts, innovative energy storage devices necessary for hybridization, and novel high efficiency power trains for both on- and off-highway vehicles.
  • NSF funding will end in 2017, and new funding sources are needed to continue and expand this platform.

Fluid power is also focused on market education and workforce development

  • Numerous standards, webinars, and conferences exist that teach best practice design and maintenance techniques for reliable and energy efficient fluid power systems.
  • The NFPA Education and Technology Foundation is a charitable organization that works to expand the pool of students exposed to fluid power and to build connections between those students and industry.

As it turned out, much of this background information was not actually needed for the meeting (although it still provides a strong summary of the case for including fluid power in the energy efficiency programs of the DOE). The interim director had done his homework. He had read our study, knew and understood what fluid power technology was and the potential it represented, and was prepared to talk about ways to better incorporate it into the energy efficiency objectives and programs of his Office. In short order, two immediate opportunities were identified—getting fluid power engaged on the U.S. Council of Competitiveness, where future structures and private/public partnerships were being discussed to address energy efficiency, and seeing if fluid power could be better incorporated into the AMO’s existing industrial energy assessment programs.

My next article will start describing the work we have subsequently done in each of these areas.

The intent of this series is to keep NFPA members better informed about our efforts in this regard, and also to seek their help in advocating for the envisioned program. Please watch this space for more background on this issue as well as regular updates on our progress. If you would like to become more involved, please contact Eric Lanke directly at (414) 778-3351 or elanke@nfpa.com. Getting industry leaders engaged in this effort will be critical to its ultimate success.

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